Esther Vergeer, the best wheelchair tennis player of all time and holder of a Master in Sport Management from Johan Cruyff Institute, has created a program to manage the careers of young tennis talents
Esther Vergeer feels fulfilled surrounded by tennis courts. Such has been her legend with the racket that on seeing her nobody doubts that one’s limits are not in a wheelchair, but in how far one wants to get despite the circumstances. Esther was left without mobility in her legs at the age of eight as a result of an error on an operating table. Since then, her life has been an example of continual self-improvement, and the success of her tennis career is very difficult to beat: 284 titles won (including 21 Grand Slams in singles and 23 in doubles), 7 Olympic gold medals (4 singles and 3 doubles), 668 weeks as world number one and 10 years unbeaten (with 470 consecutive wins).
Such a legacy could not be left to the history books alone. Esther, now 34, hung up her racket at 31 to start a new phase that fulfills her almost as much as in her glory days. She runs her own foundation to promote sport among children with disabilities, is advisor to the Dutch Paralympic Tennis Federation, and director of the ATP ABN AMRO wheelchair tennis tournament in Rotterdam.
In this tournament, which she co-runs with the also former Dutch tennis player Richard Krajicek, she has found the perfect platform to help future stars with a training program for new talent. She more than anyone knows that the way from promising player to professional tennis player is winding, and she puts all her experience at the mercy of those young people who need to add method to their natural talent.
We spoke with Esther Vergeer about her directorial side, a new role for her that she plays confidently and competently not only due to her experience as an elite athlete, but also to the training she received during the Master in Sport Management at Johan Cruyff Institute.
How did you get the offer to organize the ABN AMRO International wheelchair tournament?
The tennis tournament had already existed for a long time. In the 2008 edition, there was a wheelchair tennis demonstration as part of the tournament, on the initiative of the federation and to a lesser extent ABN AMRO bank, who wanted to show the social responsibility aspect of tennis and associate it with the tournament. During the organization of this demonstration, more and more people got excited about transforming it into a real tournament and they needed a director. They talked to me and I was delighted. I thought it was one of those opportunities that you only get once in life and you can’t miss.
What are your duties as tournament director?
Basically, I am responsible for the tournament and its development: we see what the needs of the players are in terms of hotels, adequate facilities, food, rest areas, training, if we want to organize any exhibition matches, and the marketing actions we want to do. These are my responsibilities, as well as my institutional role assisting ABN AMRO with their guests. We have brand awareness, a feeling that I had in my time as a player. We have to attend to the media, giving interviews to advertise the tournament. And finally, our main challenge is to show the social aspect of sport and how you can help players in terms of personal development. We must help new talents and reward them. It is a great platform for players who are training and we are well aware that we have to grow together, so we continually evaluate what to add to continue evolving.
Esther Vergeer, with the volunteers of the ATP ABN AMRO Rotterdam
You have been part of the organization of the tournament since 2008. How do you think it has evolved?
In 2008, wheelchair tennis was just for show and in 2009 it was established for the first time as a tournament. This was the eighth edition and we have grown with time. We started with 8 participants and now we have 12. Of course, we have a limit because it is an indoor tournament and we don’t have more courts available. And not only have we grown in participants but also in the integration of both tournaments. Areas for players with full capabilities are the same as for players in wheelchairs. The facilities, provided by Ahoy, and the services (five-star hotel with relaxation rooms, food and drinks) are the same for all players. And the public has also changed; before they saw us as ‘outsiders’ and now there are many people who come to see wheelchair tennis and recognize some of the players. It’s great that they see tennis as a unique sport.
To what extent has the Master in Sport Management helped you as director of an ATP tournament?
What most caught my attention during the Master was the commercial side of things and perhaps also how to handle the communication of an event. There are many ways to see a tournament and how you can give strength to your message. How to organize, how to surround yourself with the best people to work with, how to convince people, how to attach importance to the message depending on who the interlocutor is… The tournament is not just about playing tennis. There is also the financial part and there is some risk there. I mean if you have, for example, Roger Federer as the main attraction of the tournament and he loses in the first round, what happens with the tournament? How does it affect ticket sales? How does it affect the attention that the tournament has aroused? You have to take all this into account and I am now much more aware of that. So basically, the Master gives you all the weapons you need as a manager.
What is the talent program?
Richard Krajicek and I think there are many opportunities in the world of tennis. The federation itself already has a good training program, following up many players. But the transition from promising player to professional player is very complicated; not all the details are taken into account and talented players need a set of conditions that an association or a personal trainer can’t provide by themselves due to lack of experience. Richard and I talked with ABN AMRO at the time to take a step further and add more social components to the tournament. It is not an exclusive tennis necessity; in all walks of life there is a time when you have to make the jump to become professional and they, as a bank, also had great interest in taking care of this transformation in society. So we agreed to look for a way to implement it together.
How do you help those young promises make the jump to become professionals?
Both Richard and I have a lot of experience that can be of help to these boys and girls. The way we do it is simple: first we talk to the player, with their parents and coach; we analyze the situation together and see how we can help. It does not mean we have to work together all the time, but sometimes it happens that they have a setback (in a tournament or with the federation) and they don’t know how to move forward on their own. That’s where we can create a competition plan that’s best for each player. It is very complicated for parents and even for the coach, if they haven’t done one before. We advise them well, seeing when it is important to rest in order to be able to focus on tournaments that are important. This monitoring is possible thanks to the talent program.
Esther Vergeer, dedicated to help the kids
To what extent is it important for these kids to be part of a tournament like the ATP Rotterdam, where they find themselves alongside the tennis elite?
A lot. You can train as many hours as you want, but that’s not what makes the difference in matches. You have to play matches to learn to master the stress and develop your game (that should change depending on your opponent). And you can only do that in match situations and you acquire that experience in big matches. I think the ABN AMRO tournament has a high level and is well organized, so it is a good platform to show your qualities. How do you respond to the pressure of the public, of the sponsors? … I think it’s a great experience for these young promises and what can make the difference years later when they find themselves playing in Grand Slams or in other very prestigious international tournaments.
What criteria apply when choosing those young promises to become part of the talent program?
We started last year. We did a trials day to choose the players and this year we will do another. We realized that it takes time to gain the trust of the kids, their parents and of all those around them. We continue selecting players and following them up. When these players leave and go up a level, either because of their age or because they don’t need us any more in this first stage, we look for new young promises to incorporate into the program.
Did you miss some aspects of planning in your career, gaps that you now incorporate in the program?
Yes, precisely a season planning like the one we do. I was very prone to playing many tournaments in a row, without realizing that you have to rest both physically and mentally because you spend a lot of time traveling non-stop, without going home, and that has a tremendous impact on the stability you need during a competition. I felt trapped in this spiral and I collapsed. I want my players to be very aware of that and I try to prevent it from happening to them. I mean it’s important to play many games, but every now and then you need to go home and do nothing for a week, because that’s also important in your life. And I think it is even much more so the case for disabled athletes. To know where they come from, their history, if they want to become professionals. The answer is nearly always yes, but the question is: What do you want to do with your life? Do you want to be an example of inspiration for others or not? How do you want to manage your career? Are you afraid? Does it all look very complicated? Do you want to involve your parents? That’s where I can help them, to tell their own story.
A short version of the interview was recently published as a column in Telesport, a Dutch newspaper that is offering two scholarships – one for the Master in Sport Management and one for the Master in Coaching – for the 2016-17 academic year at Johan Cruyff Institute. By doing so, Telesport contributes to the mission of Johan Cruyff Institute to educate the next generation of leaders in sport management. Check it out by clicking here
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